Book Review: The Net Beneath Us

Debut novelist Carol Dunbar is living a dream. She’s been slogging along in the local writing trenches of the Duluth-Superior area for years. She gained some local notoriety and then hit it big, signing with an agent and getting a two-book deal with a national publisher.

But it almost didn’t happen. During a recent Wisconsin Writers Association (WWA) conference Dunbar said that ten years into her twelve-year journey writing her novel, a flood in her office made her want to quit. She printed out a draft of her manuscript and was about to begin querying agents. She had written notes in the margins and on the backs of pages – things she wanted to address before she sent out the document.

Carol Dunbar discusses her book at its launch in Duluth, Minnesota, earlier this year.

Dunbar’s writing office lies underneath two 250-gallon water tanks that serve her off-the-grid home in the woods. The tanks developed a leak. For twenty minutes, water poured into her 10 x 10-foot office and onto her manuscript.

“Water is death to all things writing,” Dunbar said. Her draft was illegible. The books lining her office were destroyed. She couldn’t see how to recover from this catastrophe, and she began to cry.

At some point in the devastation, the voice of one of her characters cut through to her. It was Ethan Arnasson, the father-in-law of Elsa, the novel’s main character. Dunbar said that Ethan told her, “Carol, just give it time.” She knew he was right and felt giddy that, “My fictional character was giving me personal life advice!”

Lucky for us, Dunbar persisted. “The Net Beneath Us,” is set in remote northern Wisconsin, where Elsa, a cossetted city girl turned country widow, must determine how to carry on with two her two children in the unfinished home her husband was building for them. To cope with the challenges she faces, Elsa forges a deeper relationship with the land, learning from the trees her husband loved.

As the book jacket says, the novel is a lyrical exploration of loss, marriage, parenthood, and self-reliance; a tale of how the natural world – without and within us – offers healing, if we can learn where to look. The story is written in a rotating third-person perspective and covers the course of a year.

As a writer with a nature bent, myself, I loved Dunbar’s descriptions of Elsa’s growing connection to the forest that surrounds her home. From a floating puffball that seems sentient, to the underground fungal connections that foster communication among trees, to a mysterious white stag, nature reigns supreme in the story.

However, be prepared. A slow grief lays heavy over it, also. Dunbar’s true account about her husband, which appeared this year in the New York Times Modern Love column, offers a huge hint about the source of her dark inspiration.

I gave the book five stars on Goodreads. The writing is so beautiful, I hesitate to nitpick. But it wouldn’t be a full review without some nits. I found that the middle section dragged just a bit. Through multiple examples, this part highlights all the various ways that Elsa feels out of place in her off-the-grid home. I felt like there were too many of these instances. I found myself thinking, “We get it, already!” The other nit occurs near the end where the symbolism of the unfinished second story of Elsa’s home is compared to an unfinished aspect of Else’s psyche. I felt like it would have been stronger and more “literary” not to spell this out for readers so clearly.

At the WWA conference, Dunbar said her book editor encouraged her to change the ending from one “where the dog dies,” (a no-no in literary fiction these days) to something else. After much thought and gnashing of teeth, Dunbar did this, opting instead for the drama of a lost child. This revision works, and it anchors the story even more strongly into the trees and to the white deer.

So, this local woman made good, and we are all the richer for it. I can’t wait to see what gifts her next book will hold for us.

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